This week, following Equity’s recent exploration of the woes of workers in the cultural sector, two hefty new reports seek to highlight those difficulties.

The Genesis Foundation has issued a 37-page impact report on the success of its Genesis Kickstart Fund, which has granted £1 million to help creative professionals since its inception in October 2020. As the report identifies, £1 million is comparatively small compared to the £109 billion contributed to the UK economy by the creative industries. However, it did play “a direct and transformative role in the careers" of over 1,000 creative professionals.

This was much needed according to Rebecca Salter, President of the Royal Academy of Arts. “Without a rapid injection of support, the freelancers who sustain and energise the UK creative sector will become a lost generation. We simply cannot afford to abandon them.”

Her concerns are confirmed by The Big Freelancer Survey 2023—even longer at 68 pages. Commissioned by Freelancers Make Theatre Work, this reported the views of 1,156 freelance creative workers.

Before even delving into the report, a quick skim of some major headings tells its own story. These include:

  • Gender and income: a striking imbalance
  • Creative work as empowering, enlightening, collaborative and transformative
  • The detrimental effects of unsustainably low pay
  • Work intensification and work extension
  • An overwork/underpayment bind
  • Feeling disrespected and demoralised
  • Leaving, needing and planning to leave freelance work
  • A skills shortage in specific roles and sectors
  • Concerns about a lack of basic HR provision

It is impossible to cover 68 pages of analysis in a brief article, but a number of worrying trends currently threaten a healthy future for the theatre industry and many of its workers, a large number of whom could soon be former workers unless things change.

On the financial side, arts freelancers earn 17.5% below the national average. This seems bad enough until you discover that there is a 47.7% gender pay gap for those with 21 to 30 years’ experience. It goes without saying that women are the losers on this metric.

Astonishingly, although average income is £22,900, the mode, i.e. the amount earned by the largest number of workers, is in the range of £10,000–£15,000. How do they live?

One answer is by generating much of their income elsewhere. Only half of freelancers work full-time in the arts, while almost 20% make less than half of their income in this way, rising to 31% for those starting out.

To compound the problem, 71.5% said that their work-related expenses had gone up in the past 12 months, while only 30.2% had seen an increase in income. Remarkably, despite an inflation rate that is out of control, 46% had watched income decline compared to pre-pandemic levels, presumably because they have less work.

Why do they do it? Presumably because creative workers see their careers as empowering, enlightening, collaborative and transformative. Even so, to take an example, 60% of stage managers feel undervalued.

They are also suffering from both work intensification, i.e. more work for less pay, and work extension, i.e. more roles and responsibilities for less pay. Basically, their employers are looking for more bang for their buck. This is particularly noticeable for senior roles including directors.

An operatic example is telling:

  • 2017 Puccini opera, 8 shows, 1 dress, 8 weeks total, 5 rehearsals per week, 25 rehearsals, £1,485, effectively £12.75 per hour.
  • 2023 Puccini opera, 8 shows, 1 dress, 8 weeks, 32 rehearsals total PLUS additional 6 hours MUA / wardrobe calls, £1,400 effectively £9.33 per hour (i.e., 11% less than legal minimum wage).

Worryingly, such pressures are clearly having an impact since, while in 2022 71.1% of respondents were still working happily in the sector, in one year that number had reduced to 47.1%. The primary concerns leading to this massive drop were, in descending order, low pay, mental health, lack of job security and lack of work.

At the other end of the scale, approximately 25% of respondents were considering leaving the industry, with 32% in the 11 to 20 years’ experience bracket topping that table.

Considering that it has now become a word that influential politicians avoid at all costs, Brexit is also identified as a significant negative factor, both through its indirect impact via the cost-of-living crisis and more directly on the creative sector. Indeed, “Many feel that the past twelve months have been worse than their experiences during the pandemic due to Brexit, the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and the overwork-underpayment bind.”

This manifests itself most obviously in skills shortages in specific roles and sectors. Further, 77.9% of respondents felt that Brexit is a source of uncertainty. A couple of quotes say it all.

  • “Brexit is the stupidest course of action the British government has ever taken.”
  • “Brexit has killed off 80% of my work.”

Beyond expressing frustration, there are some positive suggestions, the last of which is bound to go down well with government ministers.

  • Create alternative funding streams to compensate for the loss of EU funding and collaborative opportunities.
  • EU/UK Work passport or permit, pre-approved so that short notice work is again available in the EU for the UK workforce.
  • The formation of a dedicated visa advice service to support UK freelancers trying to work in the EU.
  • Work towards a theatre freelancer Schengen visa.
  • Lobby for better guest reciprocal short-term visa arrangements with the USA, which currently require prohibitively expensive and complicated O1B applications.
  • Re-joining the EU.

Looking more widely, recommendations to protect freelancers and save the industry going forwards include:

  1. the introduction of fair rates of pay and working conditions
  2. better systems for holding organisations accountable
  3. improved accessibility for under-represented groups across the industry
  4. a thorough review of funding including government funding policy
  5. a drive to tackle London-centrism in funding policy and
  6. the introduction of a general EU/UK work passport or permit to facilitate short notice and short-term work.

Those interested in this topic along with government ministers are urged to seek out and read the Big Freelancer Survey 2023 in order to gain a deeper understanding of the issues faced by so many freelance workers today.